PANMUNJOM: North and South Korea set dates for high-level talks yesterday, boosting the diplomatic drive for a peaceful solution to the North’s nuclear standoff with the United States despite evidence that the North has increased military patrols near its border with the South.
The announcement that the two Koreas will hold a round of Cabinet-level meetings later this month was matched by hopeful comments by US envoy James Kelly, who said before meetings in Beijing he was “reassured” by progress in co-ordinating an effort to persuade the North to give up its nuclear weapons development.
The reclusive regime in Pyongyang, however, kept up its drumbeat of anti-American invective through state-run media, blaming nuclear proliferation on the United States and accusing Washington of using its weapons to threaten and blackmail other nations.
The public bluster had no effect on diplomatic moves in the region.
In Seoul, the South Korean Government announced that it had agreed with Pyongyang to hold Cabinet-level talks from Jan 21 to 24. The confrontation over the North’s nuclear weapons programmes was expected to be on the agenda.
Tensions on the peninsula have been rising since North Korea admitted in October to having a secret nuclear programme.
Last week, the communist regime announced its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and threatened to suspend its moratorium on missile tests.
South Korean officials have said they will use all inter-Korean contacts to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions. The upcoming talks will be the ninth round the two countries have had since a North-South summit in June 2000 and the first since October.
While the North has maintained its antagonistic stance against the United States, it has not made any alarming moves on the ground.
The US military had spotted increased patrols by North Korean soldiers over the past week in one area of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) dividing the Korean Peninsula, said Lt-Col Matthew Margotta, who commands a combined battalion of US and South Korean soldiers.
But the moves in the 4km-wide, 241km-long DMZ were “not alarming, just unusual,” and were probably “triggered by a heightening of tensions,” said Margotta.
He said the North Koreans had also occupied a guard tower in the DMZ that hadn’t been used in years.
In a speech yesterday at the Yongsan command headquarters for US troops in South Korea, President-elect Roh Moo-hyun called the US-South Korean alliance the “driving force” for security in the region.
“We can never accept North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme,” Roh said, calling for an international diplomatic effort to defuse the standoff. “The South Korean-US alliance should be the basis for this effort,” he said.
The United States keeps 37,000 troops based in South Korea, and the accidental killing of two teenage girls by American GIs driving a military vehicle has increased calls that the force be scaled down.
In Beijing, US Assistant Secretary of State Kelly went into talks at the Chinese Foreign Ministry, saying he was optimistic about international efforts to peacefully resolve the confrontation.
China has offered to host negotiations between the United States and North Korea.
“I’m very reassured,” said Kelly, who arrived from Seoul on Tuesday night. “We have to keep talking with each other to make sure that things are done in the best possible way.”
North Korea has been issuing daily diatribes against the United States through its state-run media. On Wednesday, Pyongyang’s KCNA news agency rejected international concern over its nuclear programmes and said nuclear proliferation was started by the United States. – AP
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